4 Tips for Increasing Diversity of Thought and Avoiding Groupthink at Work

4 Tips for Increasing Diversity of Thought and Avoiding Groupthink at Work

HR departments often strive to improve the DEI, or Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, within their organizations. DEI programs can involve many different kinds of training and policies to help raise awareness, representation, and acceptance of different genders, ethnicities, religions, ages, and more.

But as common as DEI programs are, they aren’t always effective. According to a study from CircaWorks that surveyed hundreds of HR leaders from organizations of all sizes, only 22% of DEI programs have reached an “expert” or “advanced” stage. Only 9% reported that their DEI initiative was highly effective.

Five employees in discussion around a table with laptops and paperwork

Why are DEI Efforts Stalling? 

One reason may be that organizations are overlooking diversity of thought when fostering a more inclusive work environment. Diversity of thought refers to training that encourages employees to keep an open mind, challenge internalized ideas, and think about alternative points of view. 

Encouraging diversity of thought is an important tactic to avoid problematic groupthink, and is often a linchpin when embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion. Without diversity of thought, DEI solutions may not be effective or last long-term.

What Exactly is Groupthink?

Groupthink is a psychological term that has become popularized as a mainstream word for flawed or destructive decision-making caused by pressure to conform. The word was first introduced in 1971 in Psychology Today. Here’s how the publication currently defines groupthink: 

“Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when a group of well-intentioned people makes irrational or non-optimal decisions spurred by the urge to conform or the belief that dissent is impossible. The problematic or premature consensus that is characteristic of groupthink may be fueled by a particular agenda—or it may be due to group members valuing harmony and coherence above critical thought.”

Groupthink stifles new ideas, alternative perspectives, and differences of opinion. It causes problems to persist and become worse rather than being addressed. In the business world, groupthink can lead to issues such as the inability to react to industry changes, or refusing to acknowledge a workplace problem with racism or sexual harassment. 

Effects and Examples of Groupthink in the Workplace

The first step to addressing the issue of groupthink is to recognize it, but this kind of thought process can sometimes be subtle and difficult to spot. 

Here are some common signs of groupthink: 

  • Self-censoring personal opinions. If a person’s opinion and experience contradicts the majority’s mindset, they main stay quiet rather than share their thoughts. A workplace struggling with groupthink often finds it difficult to brainstorm for this reason.
  • Rationalizing away evidence of flaws. For example, repeated accusations of sexual harassment may be dismissed by organization leaders as isolated incidents, misunderstandings, and miscommunication rather than a serious issue with the company culture.
    The idea that something could be wrong with the organization itself is never considered. This can also lead to poor business decisions if the group is unable to admit causes behind falling sales or other problems.
  • Never challenging the workplace authority. This often occurs when the authority figure is charismatic and persuasive. It can also happen with business leaders that assume their status or relations (such as inheriting a company) mean they should never be questioned. Employees may go along with this idea because it’s easier than trying to disagree. They may even worry that disagreeing could put their jobs in jeopardy.
  • Assuming the organization is always right. This can be dangerous when a business has had a series of successes or won acclaim for certain actions. Leaders and employees may start believing that the organization can do no wrong, and that their future decisions will always be as successful as ones made in the past.
  • Stereotyping outsiders and those with different ideas. Outsiders are sometimes given broad labels and it’s assumed they can’t really understand the organization or its goals. This can also lead to ignoring advice from third-parties like lawyers and other consultants as well.
  • Shunning or harassing people who voice their dissent. People who disagree with an idea may face intense peer pressure to admit they were wrong and go along with the group mindset. If they don’t, those who dissent may be forced out of the conversation, or even the workplace, if it becomes too inhospitable.
  • Failing to consider new information. This happens when only known information is taken into account, and only long-standing best practices are followed. New sources of information like surveys or interviews are disregarded.
    As a result, company policies do not evolve to handle new situations, which can lead to productivity declining, and other issues. 

Finally, it’s important to note that groupthink can result from the best of intentions. This is explained via the Abilene Paradox, a thought experiment created by Professor Jerry B. Harvy. 

You may be familiar with the premise: A family decides to take a trip to Abilene, and everyone outwardly agrees to it, even though they don’t truly like the idea. The trip is a disaster, with each family member’s worries coming true, but no one says anything for fear of ruining the trip for the others. 

Outwardly, they agree it was a great trip, but when they return home someone finally speaks up about how unpleasant it was. This causes the family to realize that no one wanted to take the trip in the first place. 

The family member who suggested the trip admits they didn’t want to go either, but thought that everyone else was bored and looking for something to do. 

Here, you can see that everyone was acting with good intentions, but groupthink forced them all into an unpleasant experience.

4 Tips for Encouraging Diversity of Thought and Avoiding Groupthink

So, how do you maintain a workplace that’s free of groupthink? There are several important steps HR leaders can work toward as part of their inclusivity goals. 

Hire a Diverse Workforce: This is a basic DEI goal that many organizations work to achieve. However, it’s important to remember that diversity doesn’t only mean differences in race, sexual orientation, religion, and similar factors. 

These are important points, but diversity of thought also benefits from employees that have different educations and industry backgrounds. Working in numerous countries and other varied experiences can also lead to helpful, differing points of view.

Cultivate a Learning Culture: Diversity of thought requires a willingness to listen to different perspectives and accept varied opinions. It’s not enough to give lip service to these ideas—organizations must work to develop a learning culture that is eager to hear new ideas and act on them. Doing this may also attract more forward-thinking talent that appreciates being heard. This fresh talent might have innovative ideas to share that could help advance your business.

It’s important to keep in mind that a learning culture often starts from the top and trickles down. Company leaders must be willing to consider a variety of ideas and respect the opinions of others for this culture to develop. 

Effective listening is the basis for developing this kind of receptive mindset. KnowledgeCity’s course on effective listening in professional situations may be useful in sharpening this skill.

Review Employee Performance Regularly: Performance reviews aren’t just about productivity. They are ways to discover more about an employee’s workplace experience and how they have been treated. 

Performance reviews also present an opportunity to teach employees ways to accept new ideas and encourage learning from other perspectives. This type of performance review can generate useful records to guide future actions, as well.

Encourage Interdepartmental Brainstorming: Brainstorming can encourage diversity of thought, but it’s best to get numerous perspectives. Opening up brainstorming sessions beyond a single team or department can add to the amount of helpful advice gathered. This can increase the innovative momentum of the session and aid in spotting problems that may have remained hidden. 

For example, employees in customer service and sales may be able to offer valuable perspectives in a marketing brainstorming session because of their direct interactions with customers. This kind of collaboration also bolsters understanding throughout the entire business and provides a clearer vision of an organization’s goals.

Prepare for More with KnowledgeCity

Diversity of thought is a communication-based exercise. It requires careful listening and thoughtful explanations. KnowledgeCity’s convenient, thorough guides on communication can help you achieve your diversity goals.

We offer courses on improving interpersonal oral communication, the basics of facilitating cross-cultural communication, and many other topics. Courses like these can aid in identifying potential roadblocks in your DEI initiatives, and help your organization move past them with confidence.

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